Learning from the Europeans how to do rail right

The French OuiGo low-cost rail service. (By Kabelleger / David Gubler | Wikimedia)
Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called “Talking Transportation” for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past columns by clicking on the photo. Contact Jim at [email protected].

How can we persuade more people to take the train? Well, maybe we should take a cue from our friends in Europe, especially the French.

We know, of course, about the famous French TGV, or Train à Grande Vitesse. Since 1981 these sleek trains have carried over 100 million passengers a year at speeds averaging almost 200 mph from Paris to all corners of the nation. Passengers can travel in either first or second class (coach) and enjoy on-board meals and beverages along with free wifi.

Building on that success, in 2013 the French railroad SNCF added another option:  a cheaper, all coach-seating service called OuiGo. But unlike Amtrak’s slower (non-Acela) trains, the OuiGo trains also run at high speed on the same tracks as the TGV.

A regular TGV trip almost 244 miles from Paris to Lyon would cost $75, but on the OuiGo it only costs $32. Compare that to Amtrak’s Acela from Washington to New York City (only 225 miles) which costs $120 in Business Class (there is no “coach” on Acela) or $62 on a slower Northeast Corridor train.

Why does Amtrak charge so much more? Because they have a rail monopoly.

The French OuiGo trains are usually double-deckers and luggage costs extra. There is no wifi and no food service onboard. But the OuiGo service has proven immensely popular with only half of initial riders saying they opted for the cheaper ride instead of the full-service and more expensive TGVs.

In other words, the railroad had grown its market share of travelers, attracting new passengers who might have driven or taken a bus. A quarter of those surveyed said if it wasn’t for OuiGo they wouldn’t have taken the trip at all.

But now the Europeans have added a new enhancement: competition.

The Italian railroad offers coach fares matching OuiGo’s, first class tickets comparable to the TGV and an executive class ticket with waiter-served a la carte meals in a car with only ten seats. There’s also a private meeting room available with a flat-screen TV.

What has competition meant on this line?

Well, lower fares, for one. Fares have dropped as much as 17% as service increased.  And best of all, the total number of tickets sold has more than doubled: more trains, more choices, lower fares, more train riders… and fewer cars on the road.

Train service is so good in France that the European Union has approved plans to ban short distance flights in France on busy routes well-served by high-speed rail. It’s all part of the French taking their climate initiatives seriously.

Imagine Washington to New York air shuttles being legislated out of existence.  Imagine Amtrak offering cheaper, but still high-speed, options maybe even including competition.

That’s what we’ll discuss in next week’s column.


2 responses to “Learning from the Europeans how to do rail right”

  1. Ben Hanpeter

    Great article. Even in the Northeast, where we have the best rail service in the nation we still lag far behind our peer countries. Every flight between NE corridor cities is a policy failure. Doubly so because the flights are often outright cheaper than the train. If we want to take climate change seriously, train travel must become THE way of traveling around the region. This will necessitate higher speeds and lower prices. Airlines will always have their place for long haul travel, but for regional travel, trains must be the future.

  2. Bryan Meek

    The EU has figured out how to get us to pay for their defense while investing in their infrastructure. You can’t compare the rail systems fairly without looking at NATO.

    But you left out what Spain has accomplished building underground rail networks all over their country in regions with a small fraction of Fairfield County’s gross product.

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